Hi everyone. In today’s InsideGMT article, we are bringing you something new. I know many of you, like me, enjoy solitaire designs. Most of us who have played wargames for a while can even take a non-solitaire design and play it solo, with no problem. But CDGs are much harder to solo. And that has always frustrated me, because they are incredibly thematic and tell great stories, and I LOVE the “immersed in the story” aspect of gaming. Well, recently long-time gamer and CDG-lover Jose Ruiz has put together a method to help all of us play our CDGs solo, helping us to immerse ourselves into the stories of CDGs without knowing all the cards in the opposing hand – in this case specifically for PATHS OF GLORY. So for those of you who don’t already know him from his presence on BGG or his excellent YouTube channel Stuka Joe, I’d like to introduce you to Jose and to his CDG Solo Method, and publicly thank him for making this contribution to our enjoyment of Card-Driven Games while playing solitaire. Enjoy the article and the CDG Solo Method! – Gene
If you like wargames with cards, then you probably enjoy card-driven wargames (or CDGs). Card-driven games (CDGs) have revolutionized wargaming. In CDGs the main actions on the map occur as a result of the play of cards which each side holds secretly in their hands. CDGs create suspense, encourage bluffing and deliver excitement, simply because each player is completely unaware of the other player’s cards and therefore, of the enemy’s capabilities and intentions. CDGs are also highly interactive, with players alternating playing cards and executing actions, with little or no “down time”, as is the case with many traditional hex and counter games, where you try to avoid dozing off while your opponent moves his hordes of counters. CDGs also conveniently condense a significant amount of information in the cards themselves, saving players from otherwise having to memorize additional pages of rules. Because CDGs are dependent on the draw and play of cards, re-playability is high, since players will always draw different cards at different times during each game.
It should be no surprise then, that the highest-rated wargame on Boardgamegeek is Twilight Struggle. Yes, I know what some of you are thinking, and there is a never-ending debate as to whether Twilight Struggle is a wargame or not. But make no mistake, there is no doubt that it is a CDG. So, if you’ve played CDGs, chances are that you have appreciated their unique qualities, mechanics and the nerve-racking experiences that they have to offer. That is, of course, if you’ve played CDGs as they were intended to be played, opposed by a real person.
On the other hand, if you’ve played CDGs by yourself, you might have found that the gaming experience is far from exciting, challenging or fulfilling. George Carlin once said: “Why is easy listening music so hard to listen to? Why are CDGs so hard to play solo? The reasons are obvious. When you play a CDG solo in “full-disclosure mode”, having knowledge of all the cards in both sides’ hands is what effectively defeats the most self-evident feature of the CDG design. Thus, when playing a card for one side, you know exactly how the other side can and should respond. This makes for a most awkward and unrewarding gaming experience as you play each side hoping not to remember the other side’s hand, which you studied a couple of minutes ago.
There have been recent developments in the design of solitaire player aids for certain CDGs, which allow the solo player to play competitively against an artificial intelligence system represented by flowcharts, commonly referred to as “bots”. Such solitaire player aids are found in GMT’s Churchill, and the most recent edition of Empire of the Sun, also from GMT. These AI systems are cleverly designed, and the style of play of the “bot” is based on the side’s historical performance. Nevertheless, as to solitaire provisions for playing CDGs solo, apart from the few games that have such AI solo bots, the only option you have is the “full-disclosure” mode, in other words, putting on the good ol’ dunce cap and trying to trick yourself … not very appealing.
It is somewhat tragic that as to the play of CDGs there exists such an abysm in the quality of the face-to-face gaming experience vis a vis the solitaire full-disclosure solo mode. When you play a CDG face-to-face, you agonize deciding which specific card you play next and for which purpose, and then tensely await your opponent’s response. All this excitement and tension happens while you only have to make half of all the heart-drenching card selection decisions in the game: your opponent makes the other half. On the other hand, when you play a CDG solo with all the cards staring at you at once, you’re stuck with having to make all the painstaking card play decisions, hoping for amnesia to set in so that some excitement will arise when you switch to play the opposing side. Certainly, this cannot be a healthy mental exercise.
Two-player (or multi-player) card-driven games, by their very nature, even when played between live opponents, which is exactly the way they were designed to be played, can be a stressful experience. Mark Herman, in his C3i article, “My Philosophy Behind Card Driven Game Design”, mentions that he has had players write to him saying that they love For the People, but that they had to stop playing the game for a while because they could not handle the stress. Curiously, this stress is exactly the kind of feeling that Mr. Herman aims for in his CDG designs, that is, the feeling of bearing the weight of command, where “every decision carries significant ramifications.” In full-disclosure solo play, you make all the card selection decisions, while trying to outmaneuver yourself. These mental contortions can be draining and may certainly discourage many from playing the game solo. This has been a constant complaint raised by one of my most esteemed and respected YouTube wargamers, one who has played a significant number of CDGs and has the videos to prove it: Enrico Viglino (aka “Calandale”). This is the kind of mental fatigue I have experienced when playing in full-disclosure mode and filming my playthrough videos for The Thirty Years War (GMT) and Napoleon Against Europe (Hexasim), both, excellent two-player games.
With all this gloom surrounding solo CDG play, one is lead to ask if, apart from developing artificial intelligence flowcharts for every CDG in the market, (something which seems very unlikely), is there a more meaningful, entertaining and mentally healthy way of playing these games solo than the “dunce cap tango”? Is there a way to play CDGs in solitaire mode where the player will experience the story developing as he plays along, while occasionally being surprised by unexpected events and forced to react to developing and changing situations, all while being unaware of all of the other side’s cards whenever he plays one side? This is what the CDG Solo Method is all about.
First, let’s talk about what this method is not. The method is not an artificial intelligence device that will allow the solo player to play competitively against a non-player side. Consequently, the method has no flowcharts and no lists of play priorities for each side in a game. In this method you will be playing both sides to the best of your ability within the specific circumstances that the method will create for you. Be advised, however, that you will not have the level of card selection control that a player has in a face-to-face CDG match. As in many aspects of life, too much of a thing can be bad. A wargame that allows a player too much control of the actions occurring on the map (e.g. Squad Leader) can be sensed as unrealistic; while one that gives the player too little control (e.g. B-17: Queen of the Skies) is a sign that there’s not much of a game there. So, let’s aim for the middle ground: significant control with the right amount of uncertainty added.
The main purpose of this Solo Method is to allow the player to enjoy the story that unfolds as the game is played. This method is not a way to compete against a particular side. Therefore, it may not be for everyone. In the end, which side wins takes a back seat to immersing oneself in the developing story that CDGs can definitely create.
In full-disclosure solo mode, the solitaire player tends to feel guilty if he ever peeks at the cards of the side that he is not currently playing. In this Solo Method, it is perfectly fine for you to look at the non-phasing side’s hand. In playing with this method, some of the cards of the other side will be face-down. But don’t feel bad about looking at the face-up cards; these visible cards represent the fruits of the other side’s military intelligence efforts and espionage. And, as you will see further ahead, having knowledge of this information may not always prove reliable. There will also be situations where one or more of the face-up cards of the other side are Combat Event cards, that is, cards that may affect combat when played during a battle. In this Solo Method, the mere presence of a visible Combat Event card of the non-active side will certainly send a chilling effect to the solo player, currently playing the active side, who must ponder whether to launch an attack or not. Whether such Combat Event card on defense is actually played is also something that the solo player will not decide at all. The method will do this for the player, avoiding the player from having to perform mental acrobatics in each combat situation.
In developing this method, I have laid down some general principles and goals to follow. These, so far, are:
- Simplicity. The method’s mechanics should be logical and easy to understand, with rules that should not exceed two pages. The method’s rules for a particular game should fit in a two-sided 8” x 11” sheet. The last thing needed here is to create a “game within the game”.
- Near instant results. The random mechanics of the method should produce results quickly, needing only the roll of two dice, so that the solo player can concentrate on the actions unfolding on the map.
- Realism. The method’s mechanics should give the player a sense that the results generated are the product of real-world circumstances which are typical of armed conflicts.
- Reasonable Uncertainty. The method should inject a proper amount of uncertainty to the card selection process, something that the current full-disclosure solo mode lacks entirely. Notice that the operative term here is “reasonable”. This means that the player is still at the forefront of the side he is currently playing and his decisions are important. When playing one side, the player has knowledge of some (but not all) of the enemy’s capabilities (cards) and will be called to make the best possible decision within each particular situation. Whether such decision actually translates into the desired actions on the map is, of course, another matter. Thus, the solo player will not have the absolute card selection control that a face-to-face CDG player has. After all, it is the element of uncertainty as to the selection and play of cards what makes CDGs so special.
- Active-side focus. During each phase where cards are played in the game, the solo player will concentrate on making decisions for the phasing (or active) side, while the method’s mechanics will supply any decisions needed to be made by the non-phasing (inactive) side. This focused approach saves the solo player from multiple “mentality switches”, a phenomenon which is the source of much frustration and headaches in solo play: things which we certainly need less of in wargaming.
- Portability. Last but not least, the method should be able to be used, with certain tweaks, with numerous CDGs. Given the popularity and proliferation of CDGs, it is a reality that not all CDGs are created equal. Compare the card play mechanics in a Mark Herman-CDG to the mechanics in a Ted Raicer-CDG. Thus, adjustments need to be made in keeping with a particular game’s rules and essence, noting of course, that determining a game’s “essence” can be a very subjective concept, indeed.
To facilitate explaining this Solo CDG Method, I will refer here to one of the most popular CDG wargames ever published. If you like CDGs, you probably have this game already: Paths of Glory, from GMT, now in its 5th printing.
In explaining the reasoning behind the Solo method, let’s take a look first at the characteristics of your typical CDG wargame and how the method is implemented as to these aspects. I will also discuss some aspects of CDGs that have been criticized in the past, to see how the Solo method can handle these issues.
Most evident of all characteristics is the inherent element of uncertainty in CDGs as to each side’s play of cards. It follows then, that if we are to develop a method of playing CDGs solo, we must ensure that we add a reasonable element of uncertainty with respect to the play of cards by both sides. In a face-to-face CDG, each player has full control of all the cards in their hands. This means that each player selects roughly 50% of the cards played in the game. When you play a CDG solo in “full-disclosure” mode, you select 100% of the cards played, which, as we has stated above, delivers a less-than-desirable gaming experience. Thus, in this Solo Method, we want to introduce a level of uncertainty as to the play of cards that approximates the face-to-face experience (50%) so that the solo gaming experience retains a similar dosage of uncertainty as the opposed game.
Another characteristic of most CDGs is that Strategy cards can be played for more than one purpose. In Paths of Glory, a card can be played for one of four purposes: for Operation Points (known as “Ops”), to trigger Events, to receive Replacement Points or to conduct Strategic Redeployment.
In CDGs, as cards are played during each Action Round, the number of cards in a player’s hand decreases accordingly. Thus, in Paths of Glory, if a player plays a card in the 1st round, he will have 6 cards left. If he plays another card in the 2nd Round, he will have 5 left. And so forth. Thus, if a player plays a card in each Action Round, at the end of the 6th and last Action Round, he will have one card left (unless, of course, he played a card as a Combat Event card during a combat situation he or his opponent initiated, in which case, he will have no cards left.)
In this CDG Solo Method, each side will always have a “hand” of five (5) cards to choose from in each of the Action rounds. This, as we will later show, will be necessary to keep a constant flow of cards flowing through a side’s hand, so that newly-drawn cards of one of the sides may remain face-down while the solo player plays the other side.
It is also customary in CDGs that players have complete knowledge of the cards in their hand, while having no knowledge whatsoever of the cards in the enemy’s hand. This is perfectly fine in a two-player face-to-face game. But in a solo setting, this omnipresent knowledge destroys the main feature of the CDG design. In this CDG Solo Method, whenever conducting an Action round for one side (the phasing side), the player will have knowledge of all five cards in that side’s “hand”, while not having knowledge of all of the cards of the non-phasing side.
In face-to-face CDGs, each player has total control of which of his card is played in any of the Action rounds the player desires. In other words, when a player selects a card to be played for a specific purpose, the card gets played with absolute certainty for said purpose, always. In other words, there is no chance for a selected card to not be played as a result of changing circumstances, faulty communications, botched plans, bureaucratic blunders or other mishaps typical in armed conflicts.
This seemingly excessive control of one’s side’s actions is one aspect of CDGs that has actually drawn some criticism. Some people feel that players of CDGs have too much control over certain affairs represented in the game. After all, who does the player represent in a CDG? In Paths of Glory, for instance, the players do not represent a single individual, as for instance, is the case in For the People, where players represent the supreme commanders on each side: Lincoln and Jefferson Davis. In Paths of Glory, each player represents a conglomerate of allied nations with diverse political and military leaders and objectives: persons that span the gamut of abilities and agendas, all fighting on the same side at times with conflicting ideas as to how to accomplish their goals. Under these circumstances, having too much control over a side’s military options seems somewhat over-optimistic. Consequently, adding a reasonable element of uncertainty to the card selection process of the active (phasing) side, seems just about right.
In this Solo Method, the player does not select and automatically play a card. Instead, the player “nominates” a card to be played. The method uses a Card Display for each side (as shown below). The display, in its top half has a Draw Pile and a Discard Pile. In the bottom half there is a Card Track composed of five lettered spaces from left to right, “A”, “B”, “C”, “D” and “E”. Each space on the track has a specific Card Selection Range, expressed as a range of results with a six-sided die. The method uses two dice, one white and one of a different color. The player nominates for play one card of those in Spaces “A” through ‘E”, and rolls both dice. The white die roll is checked against the Nominated Card’s selection range. Cards in spaces “A” and “E” are selected with a white die roll of 1-3; those in spaces B and D, with a 1-4; and the card in the middle space, Space “C”, with a roll of 1-5.
If the white die roll falls outside the card’s range, then the colored die roll determines the card to be played: a “one” selects Card “A”; a “two”, Card “B”; a “three”, Card “C”; a “four”, Card “D”; and a “five”, Card “E”. In the event of a colored die roll of “six”, you draw the top card from the Draw Pile and play the card for any allowable purpose. Thus, this is how the CDG Solo Method adds an element of randomness to the phasing side’s card selection process.
Also, as things currently stand in full-disclosure CDG solo play, all Strategy Cards have the same 100% chance of being played at all times during the Action (or Strategy) Round. Action Rounds sometimes represent prolonged periods of time. In Paths of Glory, each turn (except the first two turns of the game) represents a three-month season. In CDGs, a particular Strategy card may be played in the first round of the Action Phase with absolute certainty, while the same card may be withheld only to be played in the sixth round, with the same degree of certainty. This, of course, is fine in a two-player setting where the game challenges players to maximize the effectiveness of their hand by knowing when to withhold and when to play a particular card.
What do each of Spaces “A” through “E” of the card track, with different selection ranges, represent? Since they accommodate Strategy Cards, let’s first answer the question: what do Strategy Cards represent?
Strategy cards, which can be played for one of various purposes, represent distinct and defined courses of action. A common characteristic of Strategy Cards in CDGs is that the higher Ops-valued cards also have higher values for other purposes for which the card can be used for. Thus, a 4-Ops card in Paths of Glory will also show more replacement and strategic redeployment points than a 2-Ops card. In addition, the effect of the event in a high-Ops card also tends to be more dramatic than the events found in lower-Ops cards. This correlation is necessary in all CDGs, otherwise, the decision as to for which specific purpose a Strategy card should be played would become obvious and players would always play a particular card for the same purpose.
So if cards represent courses of action, what do each of Spaces “A” through “E” on the Card Display represents? In short, each space represents a degree of military awareness, intelligence and preparedness to act upon such course of action. Let’s look at each of the Spaces on the track.
A card in leftmost space, Space “A” (with a Selection Range of 1-3), represents a course of action that the side has just become aware of its existence, but for which there is not enough information available so as to make it a reliable and executable option at this time.
A card in Space “B” (Selection Range of 1-4), represents a course of action that has been studied for some time and for which there is significant information, but for which there are still doubts as to whether it can be implemented successfully.
A card in Space “C” (Selection Range of 1-5), represents the specific course of action that the side is currently most prepared for at this time, the one with the most information gathered at the time and the one with the best chance of implementation at all levels of command.
A card in Space “D” (Selection Range of 1-4), represents a course of action that had been contemplated and studied for some time, but not acted upon and at this time may not be as suitable to the situation at hand as it was before.
And finally, the card in the rightmost space of the track, Space “E” (Selection Range of 1-3), represents a course of action that once appeared certain and realistic, but has either been neglected, overlooked or simply relegated to secondary importance, and at this time, there are serious doubts as to its implementation.
In the CDG Solo Method, the passage of time and the selection of a particular card for play affects the chances playing other cards and thus, undertaking other courses of action. For this, the Solo Method uses a card-cycling mechanic. Every time a card is played, all remaining cards on the Card Display’s track are cycled and their chances of being played change accordingly. Any card in rightmost space, Space “E”, goes to Discard Pile, unplayed. Any cards remaining in Spaces “A” to “D”, are then moved, one-by-one, all the way to the right of the track, so that each card occupies a space on the track. Then, any remaining empty spaces (usually Spaces “A” and “B”), are filled with cards from the Draw Pile, which are left face-down.
What does this card cycling mechanic at the end of each round represent? The cycling, in which cards are discarded without being played and other cards suffer changes in their selection probabilities, represents the effects of time over opportunities to act, as well as the cost of deciding on a specific course of action, where a distinct course of action is often sacrificed.
And now to the most glaring of issues in CDGs: the triggering of events. CDGs have been repeatedly criticized for giving players “god-like” powers in allowing them to trigger specific events at their whim. Some events relate to weather conditions, supply problems, effects of historical battles, leaders and campaigns, as well as the effects of weaponry and technology.
In the old days of wargaming, hex and counters games had very little in the form of specific historical events affecting play. Later on, the effects of historical events were incorporated into the game by way of a random events table. These random events added uncertainty and tension to the game, precisely because the players had no say in when they would be triggered.
In CDGs, because of their nature, where each card contains an event, there is an ample field of possible events that may occur during the game. With a typical CDG having 110 cards, this is the equivalence of a 110-event random event table. Surprisingly, because of the CDG’s card play mechanics, none of these events are truly random. In CDGs, the players trigger these wonderfully-devilish curveballs simply by playing the corresponding card. Of course, in a two-player CDG setting, unleashing a particular storm, famine or major offensive event at the right moment can signal the hallmark of gamesmanship. In a solo setting where you have all the cards staring at you at the time, it never is.
In the Solo CDG Method, the player will still be able to trigger events when he successfully rolls for the Nominated Card to be played and plays the card for its event. However, in this method, there is a significant probability, that is, a 17% chance during each action round, of a truly random event being triggered. Whenever doubles are rolled, a card will be played solely for its event. Thus, if double ones, twos, threes, fours or fives are rolled, then the card in Spaces “A”, “B”, “C”, “D” or “E”, respectively, will be played solely for its event. Also, there are provisions for unforseen random events to occur. This happens when a double-six (“66”) is rolled, in which case the topmost card of the Draw Pile is drawn and played it for its event. The only two exceptions to the play of a random event occur (1) when the event’s requirements have not been met or (2) the event is a Combat Event. In any of these two instances, the player plays the selected card for any other allowable purpose.
Finally, in the present form of playing CDGs solitaire, the player knows the exact composition of each of the side’s hands at all times. This knowledge, of course, does away with the CDG’s main design feature, the uncertainty generated by not knowing the opponent’s cards. CDGs create a fog of war, not as to the composition of enemy forces, but as to the enemy’s capabilities, which is non-existent in full-disclosure solo play. Thus, the Solo Method should keep the player unaware of a substantial number of cards of the side which he is not currently playing, in order to maintain certain unpredictability, tension and surprise which is inherent in CDGs.
In the CDG Solo Method, after sliding all cards to the right of the display, the player draws as many cards as necessary to fill the empty spaces on the track, and places the newly-drawn cards, one in each space, leaving them face-down. These cards will remain face-down until that side’s next Action Round, or until the other side declares at least one attack, in which case, the face-down cards are flipped to see if there are any eligible Combat Event cards that may aid the defenders.
Well, this is the madness behind this method. I have tested this method, but not extensively. For that I rely on the input of interested wargamers. I published a video in my YouTube Channel (Stuka Joe), which explains the Solo Method as I play along one full turn of Paths of Glory. The video can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RflzYpnjcmw. The Card Displays and Solo Method Rules can be downloaded below or from the Paths of Glory page on the GMT website.
This Solo Method is a project which is under development and it is inevitable that the method will need to be tweaked to accommodate different games. I enjoy CDGs immensely and this is a genre that is here to stay. I have received feedback from some gamers who have stated that the pace and flow of the game may be different when compared to the two-player game. I have no doubt that it is a different gaming experience. The clue here is that the method deliver a solo experience which is more enjoyable that the current “dunce-cap, full-disclosure” state of affairs. After all, most published CDGs do not have any solitaire provisions. In this endeavor, I certainly welcome your comments, suggestions and views. This is Stuka Joe, signing off for now, thanks for reading.